My son Conor, who is seventeen, is intrigued by systems. In an earlier draft of this story, I wrote, “My stepson Conor is passionate about the interconnectedness of the myriad parts composing complex processes.” When I showed Conor that draft, he said, “I’d rather be your son who is intrigued by systems.”
A few weeks ago, Conor made an exquisite pen and ink drawing, eighteen-inches-wide and fourteen-inches-tall, of me sitting at my customary table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek. With enviable self-confidence and a knack for making money from his art, Conor framed the drawing, displayed the work on the wall at Mona’s, and sold the blessed thing for three hundred dollars to an art collector from San Francisco.
In the drawing, I am wearing a gray dress shirt tucked into darker gray pants, my gray hair short and multi-directional, my reading glasses round-framed, and I seem to be smiling ever-so-slightly as I write in one of my five notebooks.
My four other notebooks are stacked beside my old leather briefcase, and next to the stack of notebooks is a half-eaten muffin on a white plate. Adjacent to the muffin is a large white mug, the contents of which are indiscernible. The pen I’m writing with is long and skinny and has an extremely fine point.
In a white space two-inches tall and eighteen-inches-wide at the bottom of the drawing, in Conor’s small-but-easy-to-read print are the following two paragraphs.
May 7, 10:43 AM. Carmeline Creek, California. Paul Windsor sitting at southwest window table in Mona’s bakery. Briefcase: brown leather, handmade in Oaxaca, circa 1976. Pen: Staedtler triplus fineliner, black ink. Five notebooks. Paul is writing in Notebook #1: Poetry (Strathmore Sketch, fine tooth surface, 100 sheets, 9 in. x 12 in. 60 lb.) Notebook #2: Prose (Strathmore Sketch, recycled paper, 100 sheets, 5.5 in. x 8.5 in 60 lb.) Notebook #3: Song Lyrics (Aquabee Super Deluxe Sketch, Excellent Tooth, 60 sheets, 6 in. x 6 in. 93 lb.) Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue (Strathmore Sketch, fine tooth surface, 100 sheets, 9 in. x 12 in. 60 lb.) Notebook #5: Ideas & Miscellaneous. (National Brand, Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease Paper, 80 sheets, 7.75”. x 5”)
Paul arrives at Mona’s every day circa 10 AM, greets his wife Elisha (counterperson) with jaunty wave, claims customary table, unpacks briefcase, goes to counter, effects British, French, German, or Serbian accent, pretends not to know Elisha, flirts with her. Elisha mimics Paul’s accent and responds to his flirtation with humorous non sequiturs. Paul returns to customary table with muffin and tea, writes, socializes, writes, departs Mona’s circa 1 PM (kisses Elisha goodbye if she’s not too busy.)
Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue also contains snippets of conversations I have with friends, and I thought you might enjoy one of my exchanges with a fellow denizen of Mona’s, Alberto Puerto Vallarta.
Alberto, a renowned performance artist, is seventy-four, his wavy black hair turning gray. He is handsome and fit and reminds older people of the actor Omar Sharif. His performances include poetry, monologues, improvised scenes, dance, and songs. He speaks English with a pleasing Spanish accent, and his voice is so resonant, he often sounds as if he is singing when he is merely speaking.
Paul: Were you born with the last name Puerto Vallarta?
Alberto: No, I was born Alberto Gomez. In El Paso, Texas. My mother and father came across the border from Ciudad Juárez to have me in an American hospital so I would be born an American citizen. My mother was very clever. She waited until just a few minutes before she was about to give birth before entering the emergency room so they couldn’t turn in good conscience her away.
Alberto: So you’ve heard of the artist Judy Chicago. When I was in my twenties, I was working as a bricklayer in Fresno. We were at the university there for a couple weeks putting in a big brick terrace surrounded by a low brick wall. One day on my lunch break I wandered over to the art department and came to a big studio where Judy Chicago was teaching a painting class. I was mesmerized. She was strong and funny and everything she said interested me. I secretly fancied myself an artist who had yet to make art because I didn’t have the time or the money or some excuse like that. I watched her for twenty minutes and then went back to my bricklaying. A little later one of the art students walked by and I asked her who the teacher was and she said, ‘Judy Chicago. She’s famous.’ And in that very moment, I heard the name Alberto Puerto Vallarta, which is where my mother was born, so I decided that would be my name from then on.
Paul: How did you go from bricklaying to performance art?
Alberto: I went from bricklaying to being a sculptor. A couple years after my encounter with Judy Chicago, I moved to Los Angeles and we were building a brick wall around a big estate in Beverly Hills, me and Diego Ruiz. Great guy. One day these three guys show up with a big metal sculpture in the back of a flatbed truck, a blatant Calder knockoff, and then the artist shows up. Delmore Rexroth. The three guys do something to piss him off, he throws a fit, and the three guys leave. Delmore sees me and Diego and asks us to help him install the piece. When we finish, he asks me if I want to work for him.
Paul: What did you do for Delmore?
Alberto: (laughs) I made Calder knockoffs and he put his name on them and sold them to rich people. He was in Europe and New York a lot of the time, you know, schmoozing with rich people who thought he was a great artist, and while he was gone I’d spend a few hours every day working on my own art, smaller pieces, about the size of chairs. Fanciful things. Copper and bronze tubing. Strange creatures and surreal furniture. When I had seven pieces I liked, I showed pictures of them to the curator of a gallery that showed sculptures and she put me in a group show. All seven pieces sold the first night and she offered me a solo show. I quit working for Delmore, used the garage of the house I was renting with two other guys as my studio, and at the opening of my solo show, my friend Ricardo played guitar and I improvised a speech and danced with my sculptures. They were all somewhat kinetic and the people went crazy and Alberto Puerto Vallarta became a star.
Paul: Fast-forward fifty years. Your last show was about parenting. What was the genesis of that?
Alberto: I had three children, one with my first wife, two with Carmen (Alberto’s second and current wife). My first wife felt oppressed by motherhood, whereas Carmen loved being a mother, and our children profoundly reflected their mothers’ attitudes. My kids with Carmen were happy and got along very well with other people, but Lola, you know, she was so dependent on me for approval and love that until she had some good therapy when she was in her forties, she had a difficult time relating to women, and all her close friends were men.
Paul: How did you learn to parent?
Alberto: Oh from my parents. Also from taking care of my younger brother and cousins. My parents were very calm people, so I was calm, too. And once I was walking and talking, they treated me as their emotional and intellectual equal, even if I didn’t yet know everything they wanted me to know. They taught me to love and respect my elders, to do my chores, to do what was necessary for the good of the family, and they were very patient with me. My mother was excellent at explaining things to me, and both my parents celebrated my uniqueness. And they allowed me to try on all sorts of identities so long as I met my obligations to la familia. And that’s how I raised my kids. So, to answer your original question about my show, I wanted to talk about the damage being done to our children and families and communities by the way many children are being raised in America today.
Paul: What would you say is the hardest thing about parenting?
Alberto: I don’t think in terms of hard or easy. I think a parent has to take care of the child with love and consistency so when the child begins to develop the skills and confidence for self-care, love and consistency are ingrained in them. And then comes the transition phase where the child needs to be given more and more responsibility for taking care of herself and taking care of other people. That’s a big thing missing today. Taking care of other people. Taking care of the old ones who need help, the younger ones who need help, the sick and the hurt. Whoever needs care. And at the same time, the child’s uniqueness needs to be celebrated, along with everyone else’s uniqueness. Equality. You know. In this society, the media and the social system ingrain in people the idea that life is a hierarchy. We’re told we’re better than some people, not as good as other people, and we’re told winning is a virtue and losing is a shame, that some people are stupid, some are smart, some good, some bad. My children grew up knowing everyone has value and no one is less than anyone else. It’s not hard to teach that if you start right away, if you build that truth into the learning of language and in the development of social skills, but most parents don’t do that now. Everything is about superficially aggrandizing the individual while actually compressing their individuality into little boxes.
Paul: How did you handle your kids’ teenage years?
Alberto: What do you mean?
Paul: Well… their need to rebel, to break away from you… all that.
Alberto: There’s no need to rebel if you haven’t been enslaved.
Paul: But surely you disciplined them.
Alberto: Discipline, sure. But never punishment. You can’t accomplish very much without discipline, but punishment is never helpful, never productive. You can shower a child with love without spoiling him, and you can deny a kid something, some crap food or a smart phone or staying up too late without it being a punishment.
Paul: How do you do that?
Alberto: You honor their intelligence and present everything in the larger context of family and community and what’s good for them. The worst thing a parent can do is impose rules and limitations without thoroughly discussing the complicated reasons for those rules. Language! Look at Conor and Alexandra. They are far more sophisticated than most adults. Why? Because their mother raised them as her intellectual and emotional peers. She did not infantilize them, which is what is happening now more than ever because our culture, our books and movies and everything is aimed at the infant mind, or at best the adolescent.
Paul: You mentioned smart phones. What…
Alberto: Listen, there is so much proof that these things are poison for the developing brain, there shouldn’t even be a discussion. Do you let your three-year-old smoke cigarettes? But this is what the parents are doing now. Handing these phones to babies. I see it all the time. The little child in the stroller fusses, the mother or father hands the child the phone. Silence. Brain captured and it can’t form properly. This has been proven in countless rigorous studies. It should be a serious crime to give a child a portable computer before their brain is fully formed. It’s insanity on a massive scale, and it creates people who don’t know how to relate to each other, people detached from reality and separated from the miracle of life. I feel so sad about it.
Paul: Do you have a smart phone?
Alberto: Yes, I do. They took away all the pay phones and the camera on my phone is very good.
Paul: Yet you think these phones are poison.
Alberto: For the developing mind, yes. My mind is well developed and I mostly use my phone as a phone and camera.
Paul: And you make videos that people watch on their phones.
Alberto: Yes, I am entwined with the cultural matrix as it is currently manifesting. Before there was an internet and videos, I was only known to people who saw my shows or read about me in reviews. And now millions of people watch my performances on their phones and pads and computers. I want to connect with other people, and this is one of the ways I connect.
Paul: You don’t feel you’re part of the poison?
Alberto: I feel I am part of everything.